WITH Celtic, and specifically goalkeeper Fraser Forster, standing on the brink of breaking a record of over 40 years’ standing, there is plenty to interest those in attendance at today’s lunchtime clash between Hearts and Neil Lennon’s visiting team.
The home supporters will be keen for their side to frustrate Celtic in their record attempt, while the away fans will turn up in anticipation of witnessing a significant achievement in the annals of Scottish football. It is perhaps just as well there is such an issue at stake given that both teams are so cemented in their respective positions at the top and bottom of the Scottish Premiership.
Lennon sought to share out the praise yesterday as Forster attempts to make history by eclipsing Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark’s 43-year-old record. Forster needs to ensure Hearts – the league’s bottom club and lowest scorers – fail to find the net for at least 31 minutes today having already kept 12 successive clean sheets in the league.
“It’d be a great landmark,” said Lennon. “Clean sheets are very difficult things to do. When you break a record you look back over moments and I think of some of the saves that Fraser made, particularly at Hibs [in the recent 4-0 victory] and then there was one at home to Partick Thistle as well [from Christie Elliott]. There was even one last week [against St Johnstone] which he saved with his leg.
“You need a little bit of luck along the way. But it would be fantastic and another big feather in his cap if he was to do that. To be as consistent as that for such a concerted period of time takes some doing,” added Lennon, who also singled out centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Efe Ambrose for special praise.
“The two centre-halves have been very consistent in that period as well – and we’ve got four very talented full backs as well. But the two centre halves have been brilliant.”
Van Dijk has not been included in a 33-man gathering recently called by Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal ahead of this summer’s World Cup, something that Lennon has admitted he is “very surprised” about.
“It might be a personal thing, the coach’s choice,” said Lennon. “I don’t know – he might have his own way of setting a team out but do I think he’s good enough to make a 33-man squad? I certainly do. What has pleased me as much as anything is his personality and his temperament. He’s really adapted to life here and he’s very, very good in the dressing room. His attitude is fantastic.”
There have already been reports linking the player with moves to both Manchester United and Manchester City. In the case of United, they are looking for a replacement for Nemanja Vidic, whose move to Inter Milan in the summer is all but confirmed. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Lennon, with reference to the interest. “I don’t know how much truth there is in that, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
“I think he’s one of the best centre halves we’ve seen up here in quite a while. He’s technically gifted and very good in the air, which is something you can’t always say of Dutch defenders – he’s aggressive and he’s adapted to the British game very well. At times he makes it look easy, which it’s not, obviously. People say he’s got another gear. I’m not sure about that.”
Lennon’s return to Tynecastle is also sure to attract interest for reasons that have little to do with football. It was at the stadium that he was attacked from behind by a supporter during a game between Hearts and Celtic three years ago. Much more recently, the Celtic manager was also the target for abuse and a flying cup of hot drink as he watched the League Cup semi-final between Aberdeen and St Johnstone from the stand.
Neither incident has soured his view of Tynecastle as a football stadium that Lennon still rates as excellent for atmosphere. There is also the happy matter of a 7-0 Scottish Cup victory on Celtic’s last visit, which the manager has described as
the best his side have performed under him.
“I do like it there,” he said. “I do like the dynamic of the stadium and the atmosphere it generates. I used to enjoy playing there. I’m pretty sure it will be raucous.”
He described the prospect of Hearts slipping out of the top flight as a loss but praised manager Gary Locke for the way he has handled himself in this most difficult of seasons. Like Lennon, Locke has had to learn about top-level management while operating under heavy scrutiny, and the Celtic manager believes his opposite number has “had the hardest job of any of us”.
He added that he didn’t think the experience would scar Locke; rather, it might help him develop as a manager. “He loves the club and his enthusiasm for the job is unrelenting,” said Lennon. “He’s done very well to keep his dignity in trying times and he’s trying to get the best out of young players.
“I’d like to think they’d give him the opportunity to go again next season,” he added.